Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
(Header Photo Copyright: iancorless.com)
It sounds like a line lifted right from the Bible: “After 18 months of pandemic an eruption of fire and molten lava shall incinerate thine running trails.”
Transvulcania Ultramarathon, a dynamic and beautiful race held on the northwest Canary Island of La Palma, was cancelled for the second year in a row this year, this time due to more than a month and half of devastation from the eruption of the island’s Cumbre Vieja Volcano and the displacements caused by lava flows, tsunami warnings, evacuations, burning buildings and, ash, toxic gases and acid rain.
Palmer Yeray González, who lives a mere three kilometers from the eruption, describes the situation as a “complete disaster” but considers himself lucky because, “at the moment I am out of the way of the lava.” He is cautious because that could change any day.
“I have relatives and friends who have lost their homes. People who have to start from zero because they lost everything.” González, who used to work for the Transvulcania organization, says that more than 6,000 people have evacuated his island.
One silver lining is that the island is now bigger due to the flow of lava, which created new land that had been sea. The destructive eruptions were accompanied by major tremors and flattened enough land to cover more than 1,000 football fields, engulfing approximately 2,000 acres and flattening almost 2,000 buildings. And the end of the Canary Island catastrophe is not yet in sight.
“Continuing your life in this situation is very complicated and it is stressful seeing each day the disaster, feeling the earthquakes, hearing the sound of this beast and knowing that it will not stop in the short term,” González explains. “Each day you hear the new situation of persons you know that have lost their homes…new friends, new relatives that have to start their lives again. A very sad situation without ending date.”
González remains optimistic, noting that the “good thing in this situation is the solidarity. People from around the world are making donations and promoting initiatives to get money to the people affected. A lot of millions of Euros in donations from regular people that hear from this disaster and want to help the people from La Palma.”
González launched a charitable initiative called LAVALIENTES as a series of auctions to raise relief funds. Athletes like Kilian Jornet and basketball player Pau Gasol donated signed items. Jornet, a past winner of the Transvulcania Ultramarathon, signed a pair of Salomon S-Lab shoes that he sent from his home in Norway that ended up selling for over 600 euros.
Funds from the auction items are paid into the official bank account of the La Palma Island Council, the entity in charge of receiving and channeling relief funds in the wake of the eruption.
La Palma is part of the Canary Islands, an archipelago of volcanic islands that are a four-hour flight from most European cities. It’s like a Spanish Hawaii. Mountainous, with a variety of climates and diverse landscapes, the feel ranges from tropical to Mediterranean to African, given the islands are 67 miles off the northwest coast of that continent. The community of the seven main Canary Islands relies on tourism and the growing of bananas, coffee, sugarcane, oranges, and tobacco. The white wine is also considered top notch.
RELATED: Running From Covid
Most of the Canary Islands have large windmill farms on their windward coasts, which also play host to many acres of banana plantations covered with wind-blocking netting. The islands of Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Palma, Lanzarote are the best-known. And, given their volcanic origins, they rise to great heights right from the Atlantic. Until six weeks ago, La Palma’s volcano, Teneguia, hadn’t erupted since 1971. La Palma’s Caldera de Taburiente National Park covers 18 square miles and was declared a World Biosphere Reserve in 2002. The island’s population is 86,000.
I Feel Your Pain
That solidarity that González sees on his own home island is alive and well with Sage Canaday, a three-time third-place finisher at Transvulcania who is in an unfortunate sympathetic position to feel La Palma’s suffering. Canaday just experienced his own disaster when a large fire burned down his apartment complex in downtown Boulder on October 19.
“Seeing the devastation of the island from the volcanic eruption was particularly heartbreaking this year after knowing that undoubtedly COVID has also made it difficult for many there already. I’ve become more sensitive to damages caused by extreme heat, smoke, ash and losing all of one’s belongings all at once,” observed Canaday. “If I’ve learned anything from the running community though, it’s how supportive we can be in a time of need. The people of La Palma need us now. I’d highly recommend entering and racing Transvulcania as it is an iconic event that has given me some of my very best memories in running.”
One year, Canaday lived and trained on the island of La Palma for several weeks before the race.
“During my time on La Palma I’ve found the people who lived there to be very kind and generous,” Canaday said. “The community is full of resilient and hard-working people who have always made me feel welcome and at home on the island.”
Canaday, like many American runners who race Transvulcania, was impressed by the “incredible amount of local crowd support” that he experienced while running the ultramarathon.
“It is legendary and a true testament to the passion that the community has for endurance sport, embracing the landscape, and supporting visitors.”
A Race with a Storied Past
With 2020’s race canceled due to COVID, 2021 would have been the 12th running of Transvulcania, which grew from 378 runners in 2009 to almost 1,700. In 2011 Marino Giacometti, president of the International Skyrunning Federation, and Lauri van Houten, ISF Executive Director, visited La Palma to check out the race at the invitation of Julio Cabrera of the Canary Islands Tourist Board. Seeing the race convinced them to introduce an Ultra Series in 2012, when they also held a three-day seminar about Skyrunning, inviting athletes and journalists from across the world.
Giacometti reflects on the spectacular geography of the island, its history, traditions and culture, noting “it’s sad and distressing to follow the ongoing news about La Palma’s volcanic eruption. Based in Italy, we live with live volcanoes, Etna in Sicily and Vesuvius in Naples. We have experienced their spitting flames, their menacing rumbling echoes…but nothing like this. Our hearts are with the people of La Palma and above all, their iconic race above the clouds. We invite runners everywhere of all levels to experience this extraordinary event and wish athletes and organisers, Less cloud. More sky!’”
“Less cloud, more sky,” is a phrase Giacometti coined, becoming a definition of Skyrunning as a sport.
RELATED: 20 Beginner-Friendly Trail Ultras
As Transvulcania grew with the Skyrunning Series it gained deep fields of world-class runners, including American legends like Canaday, Anton Krupicka, Timothy Olson, Geoff Roes, Rickey Gates, Mike Wolfe, and Joe Grant. In 2012, then-21-year-old Dakota Jones won his first race there, beating Britain’s Andy Symonds and Jornet.. That was also the year that New Zealander Anna Frost won the women’s race, placing 13th overall and slicing a hefty 1h45 minutes off the women’s record.
Frost feels for the island that has always been so friendly to her.
“From the first time I set foot in La Palma it has had a special place in my heart. The island is warm and comforting, beautiful and giving. And that is everything from the land to the people, the culture, food and ocean,” she said. “We cannot stop Mother Nature in her process, but I am so heartbroken to see so many people without a home, job and livelihood. I am sending all the strength and love that La Palma has given me over the years and sending it in a huge hug to the entire island and its people.”
2012 was not just a breakout year for Transvulcania; it was also Jones’ breakout year. He had won the Lake Sonoma 50 about a month earlier. At Transvulcania, he pushed at the front with Symonds to break away from Jornet. Jones’ 6:59:07 set a course record, taking more than a half hour off Miguel Heras’ previous best of 7:32:12.
By 2014, the race expanded to include a marathon distance and a vertical kilometer. The skyrunning “sea to sky” concept was perfectly embodied in Transvulcania, which begins at dawn on the Atlantic coast, now covered by lava, and summits the highest point on the island, Roque de los Muchachos, the volcano that is now all too live, at 2,423 meters in altitude. From there, the course plummets back down to a black sand beach and then a six-kilometer, hot and painful ascent through banana plantations to the finish in the town of Los Llanos di Aridane, where throngs of spectators cheer finishers in what feels like a European football stadium, complete with booming announcers. Each year sees an incredible international line-up and the organizers expanded staffing and budgeting to promote the event as a major attraction on the Canary Islands.
It’s the Island
History aside, the real draw to Transvulcania is the 74.3km course and the diversity of La Palma Island, which is nicknamed “Isla Bonita” (“Beautiful Island”). Runners enjoy the microclimates, ranging from cold, windy and misty to hot, dry and sunny, and the diverse landscape, including black lava-sand beaches, above-the-clouds ridge running, dirt paths through pine forests and technical singletrack. The extremes of the headlamp-lit 6am lighthouse start, space-scape of some of the world’s largest telescopes near the summit, banana groves along the final descent, a hot beach town and then a final ascent to the booming urban finish line is both a physical and emotional orchestration that brings many to tears.
Like Canaday, Cole Watson, who raced Transvulcania in 2018, recommends arriving early for such a remote race. With terrain as steep and rugged as La Palma’s, Watson was careful not to overdo it on his runs.
“I had to keep reminding myself I didn’t show up early to train, I showed up early to acclimate,” Watson says. “By arriving 10 days before Transvulcania, I was able to see everything I wanted of the course in a timely fashion.”
Brittany Peterson, who also raced in 2018, said it was helpful to get to La Palma early because she traveled there directly from the U.S.
“It helped acclimate to the time change and start getting an idea of the climate and terrain,” she said. She also raved about taking a few days afterwards, when she was able to explore more areas of the island, as “each section of the island has its own special beauty.”
Patrick Caron arrived in La Palma six days before his race.
“This was a great way to acclimate to a new country and climate, and it also gave me the opportunity to scout out and train on the course for a few days beforehand,” Caron remembers. “The downside was that with all the free time on my hands, I got a little too excited in the days leading up to the race and spent much of my time running and exploring the island. When you get 16,000 feet of climbing in the five days before a race where you have to ascend another 14,271 feet and descend 13,310 feet, you know your legs might be a bit shocked!”